In East Berlin on Sunday, the Stadion Alte Forsterei hosted one of the Bundesliga’s most complicated fixtures.

Union Berlin against RB Leipzig ended in a 3-0 win for the visitors. In itself, that was remarkable. It was Union’s first defeat in 24 matches at home and the culmination of a game full of wonderful goals, bad fouls and high drama. All of which was secondary to the main issue.

Fixtures between Union and RB are battles within a war, fought around the most sensitive issue in German football — the 50+1 rule, which ensures members of a club hold the majority of voting rights, increasing fans’ influence.

Geographically, both clubs belong to East Germany. But only one of them comes from the old GDR. To the minds of many, only one of them is really a club at all.

Their respective stories are well known. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Union spent the next few decades stumbling around inside a newly reunified Germany. Somehow in that daze, they evaded bailiffs and bankruptcy. Often on the backs of their supporters, they took a meandering path to the Bundesliga and now, ridiculously, the Champions League.

RB’s history comprises just 14 years. They do not have an exemption from the 50+1 rule. They have voting members, but just 17 of them — and most of those are Red Bull employees.

They were constructed around 50+1 and, technically, conform and while there is little love in Germany for clubs who do have exemptions — for Bayer Leverkusen or Wolfsburg or Hoffenheim — it is hard to quantify just how much ill-feeling RB generate. To many Germans, they are a direct challenge to the football culture and, on any given match day, anywhere in the country and regardless of who is taking part, it is rare to not see or hear a form of protest against them. In a banner, a chant, or even just a sticker on a signpost or railing.

In the forests of Kopenick, home to Union and a stadium that their fans helped to build for free, that resentment is particularly thick. Naturally, since it would be difficult to find two teams who contrast more sharply or in more ways — in their beliefs as to not just what football should look like, but what it should represent and mean.

Union’s players salute their support (Andreas Gora/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Union’s Alte Forsterei is a bear pit.

It is loud, the touchlines are tight to the stands and the home terrace behind the goal bounces with life for an hour before every game, an hour after it, and all the time in between. It is one of the great spectacles in the Bundesliga. The capo on his scaffolded platform, the drummer beating rhythm beside him, and the great mess of noise and life beneath them; that is the club’s heart and soul.

But before Sunday’s game kicked off, there was no capo and no drum. The platform was empty. It remained that way when the referee started the match and the entire terrace was still and silent.

Even as crosses began to fly into the box and the players started to thunder into each other, there was barely a sound. Down the other end, the visiting Leipzig fans chanted and their red and white pyrotechnic smoke billowed out from the far corner, but for 15 minutes — aside from the puffs of cigarette smoke, cries for fouls and free kicks and the occasional ripple of applause — Union did not answer.

It was a protest – and it has happened before.

Back in August 2019, Union played their first game in the Bundesliga against RB Leipzig. That day, like Sunday, the silent demonstration was intended as an atmosphere boycott and to demonstrate the importance of fans to the game. Reading about it is one thing. To experience it is another. It was profound and powerful. And strange — just one of the many oddities on a curious afternoon.

Union improbably presented Leonardo Bonucci as a new signing. It was also a day when their fans — eventually — sang about playing Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu after drawing them in the Champions League group stage. Late in the game, owing to a medical emergency, a helicopter even flew over the stadium and landed in the car park. Yet, by far the afternoon’s most impactful moment was the muted scream in its opening act.

Bonucci arrived last week from Juventus (Marco Steinbrenner/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Eventually, on the 16th minute, it was broken by a great outburst volley of noise. That was the Alte Forsterei that everyone knows. The game was also largely a good one. It was tense and tight; one of those in which any contact on the pitch causes a flutter of hostility on every side of the ground. Leipzig were very good and deserved their win. Xavi Simons, on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, scored a gorgeous goal. Dani Olmo and Benjamin Sesko combined brilliantly to conjure another. Kevin Volland — signed from Monaco, another unlikely Union deal — was also red-carded for an ugly lunge on Mohamed Simakan. It was an accident and Volland was immediately full of remorse, but it gave the day another edge.

That was sporting acrimony though, rather than ideological objection. It was simpler.

The Red Bull issue is complex. It can be difficult to grasp for outsiders. Even for people who move to Germany and make the Bundesliga their home.

It is not the basis of the objection that is elusive — the cynicism is not subtle — but the depth of feeling that it inspires. Compared to the Premier League’s tolerance for state ownership, sovereign wealth and sportswashing, the venom that RB Leipzig attract can seem disproportionate.

But in its context, to many who grew up in German football where the club members retain such agency and serve to protect much of the value within the matchday experience — the cost of tickets, the social agenda, the sense of community and atmosphere — such a construct must be affronting. Frightening, even. A vision of a future that nobody wants.

The concept of East German identity makes the issue even more complicated. Not every Union Berlin supporter grew up behind the Wall. Many inside the Alte Forsterei on Sunday were not even born when it fell. At the same time, Leipzig is a major city of the old East. In October 1989, almost 100,000 people protested for freedom and democracy in its centre. A few weeks later, 500,000 would march for the same cause in East Berlin, just days before the GDR failed and the Wall fell.

That is political and social chemistry that goes well beyond the scope of this article. It is complicated.

The football mattered a great deal on Sunday but, at the same time, not at all.



Explained: Germany’s 50+1 ownership model, the benefits and the problems

(Top photo: Andreas Gora/picture alliance via Getty Images)